This documentary about Zia Mohyeddin asks if we're letting our cultural legacy down

Published 16 Apr, 2018 02:29pm

Urdu poetry is as much a character in this documentary as the people in it

At its heart, the new documentary Some Lover To Some Beloved by Umar Riaz features actor/director/orator Zia Mohyeddin’s story in (mostly) his own words. Mohyeddin relates his earliest memories, his first experience of being on stage and the highlights of his career in a chronological fashion. He tries to brush off questions about his family life and listens bemusedly as his wife Azra Mohyeddin and former wives Sarwar Zamani and Nahid Siddiqui relate his moods, quirks and habits.

But in the framing of his story, Riaz who happens to be Mohyeddin's grandnephew, makes the film more than just a biography.

Umar Riaz's framing of Zia Mohyeddin's story makes the documentary more than just biographical
Umar Riaz's framing of Zia Mohyeddin's story makes the documentary more than just biographical

In SLTSB, Riaz also offers brief glimpses into the lives of two other Pakistani cultural greats — poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and scholar Daud Rahbar — who made an impression on Mohyeddin. The stories of these men are united by the film’s exploration of the ghazal — the metaphors, values and philosophy that shape its Urdu form and what its fading significance among Pakistan’s newer generations say about us as a people.

It focuses on the metaphor of the Lover (Aashiq) and Beloved (Mehboob). The Lover is one who seeks a greater version of their self and Beloved is that yearning, realised. "The two should never meet," explains professor Arfa Zehra in the film. And true to theme, the film focuses on those traits of Mohyeddin's that bring out the Lover in him. So we see Mohyeddin as the 84-year-old actor still seeking his best work, as a professor exacting excellence from his students, as an orator with decades of experience who still insists on full rehearsals.

The film tries to convey that a whole culture of conscientiousness, learning, reflection, sensitivity, has been upheld by the likes of Faiz and Mohyeddin. Who will carry it forward after them, it almost seems to ask.

Some Lover To Some Beloved asks the question: Who will carry forward the legacy of our cultural greats?
Some Lover To Some Beloved asks the question: Who will carry forward the legacy of our cultural greats?

Riaz poses this question but answers it too. Watching this film brought to my mind the importance of archiving -- to have Mohyeddin's story documented, to have Faiz's story through his daughters' eyes documented, to have Daud Rahbar's knowledge preserved for posterity. "Through archival, taking the good things of our past and taking it into the future, our culture gets to evolve," Riaz agrees, in conversation with Images, shortly after SLTSB's first screening in Karachi. And it's the younger generation of Pakistan that must do this labour, of preserving and learning from it.

Some Lover To Some Beloved is also the title of the ghazal that Mohyeddin is shown reciting at his 2010 annual reading, where he dedicated the evening to Faiz in honour of his upcoming centenary. This allows Riaz to segue into the part of the film about Faiz, where his daughters Salima and Moneeza Hashmi remember him as a passionate son of the soil. Riaz also includes some precious footage of late scholar Daud Rahbar, who was Mohyeddin's cousin whom he deeply admired and who sheds further light on the ghazal in the film. While both these parts do not feel to be well-woven into the greater narrative, their inclusion makes the film even more valuable.

Urdu is as much a character in this documentary as the people in it. Where photographs are filmed for Faiz who is no longer with us, Riaz employs a number of creative devices to visually represent Urdu in some very lyrically expressive ways. This is another reason why SLTSB isn’t just a straight documentary and is recommended for viewing in a film theatre. While it isn’t the kind of cinema that allows the viewer to escape into fantasy, it provides a different kind of relief. A relief from the tidalwave of dumbed-down content that hits us from the screens that surround us every waking day.

Zia Mohyeddin with SLTSB director Umar Riaz
Zia Mohyeddin with SLTSB director Umar Riaz

I feel SLTSB is more about a culture and a way of life and shouldn't have to bear the burden of offering a complete portrait of Mohyeddin. Staying true to its theme required the film to reinforce Mohyeddin's image as a towering literary genius. It's very easy to be taken by this image, in spite of Mohyeddin's plaintive insistence that he's gone through life feeling inadequate. The film has an extreme reverence for Mohyeddin, and perhaps that's expected when a film is made by one's grandnephew.

So it falls on the viewer to exercise their intelligence, to recognise the lack of emotional distance the filmmaker might have from his project, to ponder what the film may omit. What does Mohyeddin leave unsaid? What more could his life partners over the years have revealed about him? SLTSB’s a fine film, but should be watched with the knowledge that it tells us one story about Zia Mohyeddin — and many more films have to be made about him and all our cultural icons for us to truly preserve their legacy, warts and all.